Tuesday, October 16, 2007

From Hong Kong to Guangdong

this one's wordy.

As I sat in Starbucks at Kowloon Railway station, slurping a Red Bean Frappacino, I realised I’d be somewhat relieved to be leaving the fastidious and overpriced mallishness of Hong Kong behind and to be returning to the 'proper' China of 20c beer, cheap street food, and slightly less expensive touristy geegaws.

This relief lasted right up until I got off the train at Gaungzhou central station, and was pressed forward into the thronging masses and stifling temperatures.

My plan:

- Find the legendary ‘foreigners ticket counter’
- Purchase a ticket on to Nanning
- Catch a taxi to the North Railway station
- Board Nanning train
- Sleep blissfully until my arrival in Guangxi Province, rocked by the gentle swaying of train on rail.

China being China, this was of course hopelessly naïve.

The lack of bilingual signage, and general chaos the place ensured that my plan stumbled before I even ticket off the first bullet point. My attempts to garner directions from the locals resulted in fingers pointing to each of the cardinal points of the compass, and no real information being conveyed.

This meant resorting to the all-purpose, Foreigner Travelling In China Emergency Assistance Plan, or, “standing around looking bewildered until a friendly student who wants to practice his/her English approaches you”. Right on cue my assistance arrived, and after a brief discussion with one of the guards, he informed me that the foreigners ticket counter did not in fact exist, and that I would need to go to the North Train Station to buy my ticket directly. Before thanking him and heading out into the streets, I managed to find out that he had absolutely no idea where Nanning was and had never even HEARD of Vietnam.

Upon exiting the station, I realised that what I thought had been a sweaty claustrophobic box was in fact an air-conditioned haven of tranquillity compared to conditions out of doors.

Guangzhou (Canton to you colonial types) is a city of between 8.5 and 12 million people (depending on who you ask) and is a sprawling multi-lane flyover ying to Hong Kong’s pedestrian paradise yang. Dodging cars to get to a taxi rank I was made well aware of the fact that the average temperature in July ranges from 25-32 degrees Celsius, with about 270mm of rainfall.


I made it to a cab, managed to communicate my destination to the driver, then received a full blast of culture shock when he asked me to put on my seatbelt. In 11 months of living in China, I had rarely encountered a taxi that was equipped with seatbelts, let alone been asked to wear one. Crazy southerners.

So we wound our way through the drizzle and traffic to the North Train Station. I may have mentioned earlier that Lonely Planet describes this establishment along the lines of ‘teeming masses’ ‘confusing’ and ‘avoid at all costs’. It was all of this and more.

Lines snaked outside from the hot dark bowels of the ticketing office, and it took all of my gathered queue ramming and pack swinging skills to secure a place in line. 40 minutes later, sweaty, chafing from my pack, and driven near mad by the constant stares, elbows, smells and sounds of the thousands gathered around me, I made it to the front, and asked for a ticket to Nanning in my fumbling Mandarin.

“Mei You”

The words that every traveller in China will know. And dread. Turns out there were no tickets available until the following day. I bought one, then staggered back out into the sunlight, into a city where I had not planned to stay and which was described as having ‘very few options for budget travellers’.

Broadcasting my ‘what the hell am I going to do now’ face for all to see, I was soon approached by a hotel tout waving pamphlets in my face and yelling out sums of money that were about 4 times what I’d planned on paying for accommodation. To add to the fun, she spoke Cantonese, and I had a 2 year-old’s grasp of Mandarin. This is equivalent to learning a smattering of French and then finding yourself stranded in Italy for the night (with all the attendant, “we hate the French” in there as well.). Having stated a price that I was willing to pay, and being more or less understood, she set off a trot to visit various small hotels around the station. All of which were of course full (or unwilling to house a sweaty laowai who was just smart enough not to be ripped off). Darting across highways and under over passes, I was hard pressed to keep up, my pack suddenly feeling about ten times heavier and my head ten times lighter due to the moisture that was pouring out of me. Having exhausted the nearest options, she set off at a near run to a hotel a little further out. I have a suspicion that she had decided I was too much trouble and was trying to lose me at this point, but I pursued her with dogged dedication (or delirious determination. One of the two.)

Eventually, saturated, sore and stressed near breaking point, we reached the Huada College Business Hotel (No. 5 Building Guihua Road Guangzhou, entering from the gate of the Experimental Middle School of Guangzhou Univeristy. Tell them Ben sent you). Normally for international business exchangees, the fact that it was definitely not suit and tie weather meant it was almost empty. Before I could have the tricky ‘so how much do I owe you’ conversation with the tout, she was off (but not before complimenting me on keeping up) and I was soon checked into a nice (and quite reasonably priced room) with a double bed, satellite TV and, most important of all, a shower.

I showered, collapsed for a few hours, and woke up feeling something like a human being again. That taken care of (as pictured), I was left to wonder what one does with a night in Guangzhou…


Post Script: Today is Blog Action Day for the environment. In that spirit I'd like to suggest that anyone who thinks 'oh a bit of warming won't be so bad', 'cities would be better off with more and wider roads' and 'all economic development is good development' should spend half an hour running around Gaungzhou wearing a 12kg pack in mid-summer, breathing deep lungfuls of the fruits of industry and commerce. Its a good teaser of what we're heading for.


Anonymous said...

I think you had enjoyed the adventures in China so far.
So get back into China soon and skip the kangaroos.
China is a very big country, you know,with all its chaos and fun. You have barely scractched the surface. China and the world need your sense of humor.

Have fun.
Third Eye God

Neil said...

I've been to these same places you have and I can imagine your adventure. I'll never forget the crowds of people, or being hopelessly lost all the time.